March 23, 2011

UnCensered: Confessions of a Half-Fieldophile

by Joel Censer |

Former Duke standout Mike Ward made it cool to be a short-stick defensive midfielder, his host of wrap checks not possible without the sometimes-bemoaned trend of specialization.

Since I started following lacrosse more than a decade ago, I’ve consistently found myself reading or listening to arguments that the game is a shell of its former self. That the sport in its past life had defensemen who could take the ball away, midfielders who could play both ways, attackmen who weren’t afraid to dodge, sticks that with just the slightest flick of the wrist could put the ball on a teammate’s shoulder, and coaches who didn’t greedily nurse possessions.

Frankly, more often than not, I’ve ignored the nostalgia that calls for a simpler, less specialized, less possession-oriented brand of lacrosse (which has recently reached a fever pitch). First, I don’t think the utopian vision reflects actual history. Hyper-specialization? I mean, let’s not forget that during much of the 1980s, everyone would get subbed off the field during dead balls. (Can you get more specialized than a riding long-stick attackman?)

Not to mention that “specialization” has brought along, at least in my mind, some of the most exciting modern-day players. As a wide-eyed high school freshman, I was inspired by Hopkins longpole Corey Harned’s handiwork between the stripes enough to practice tough ground balls in my backyard and the “pizza delivery.”

A couple of years later, LSM Brodie Merrill was probably the best player of the modern era, while Duke’s Mike Ward had a whole host of wrap checks that made playing short-stick defensive midfield -- in all its lunchpail glory -- kind of trendy.  Isn’t it a good thing that these athletes found roles that highlighted their strengths? Don’t people want to see players specialize in the things in which they’re most talented?

With regard to the sticks, yeah, there are some guys (see: Brancaccio, Andrew) who play with too much whip or have bags that limit their ability to pass the rock quickly. And there’s always that one play during a game where some guy runs through three checks and sends the old-timers into a frenzy.

But I’ve watched the tapes from the 1980s (loved pre-Rabil prototype Del Dressel), and it’s hard for me to think of off-set heads as a corporate conspiracy meant to encourage individual play and stifle ball movement. I’d agree there are fewer Tim Nelson inspired spot feeds to the crease (although one could argue that’s more about defenses being better organized), but the ball is also on the ground a whole lot less, clearing passes are more accurate, and guys can shoot the ball harder. When you watched how Duke players last year could rifle the ball to one another and move it like a hot potato up, down and around the field, it was difficult to point to improved stick technology as ruining the game.

Finally, I don’t buy into the idea that half-field offenses and complex defenses make for boring lacrosse. Sure, I love transition and unsettled situations. End-to-end Syracuse stars like Jarret Park and Matt Abbott were incredible to watch, and today, whenever Virginia’s Chris LaPierre gets rumbling in the open-field, I get all giddy for some four-on-four fireworks.

But the reason I watched certain games over and over on VHS was never because of battles between the stripes or continued flashes of up-tempo brilliance. I always preferred Wahoo attackman Connor Gill going one-on-one against Syracuse’s John Glatzel on a post-up. Or Navy’s Mitch Hendler getting bumped up to long-stick midfield to try to contain a red-hot Kyle Harrison. Or the Hoyas defensive murderers’ row of Merrill, Andrew Braziel and Reyn Garnett giving Mikey Powell, Brian Crockett and the rest of the powerful Syracuse offense all they could handle in a playoff game in Ithaca.

I’m no half-field apologist arguing that today’s focus on possession (and efficiency during those possessions) is perfect. In fact, I don’t think 4-3 or 5-4 baseball scores are healthy. I agree with Quint’s assessment that the substitution packages take way too much time, and generally I think the game’s advantages have tilted too far to the defensive side of the field. The fact that the majority of attackmen can’t initiate against long poles, for example, isn’t a good thing.

New No. 22 JoJo Marasco was nowhere to be found during the critical final moments of Syracuse's overtime win over Johns Hopkins.

And just like the NFL (where they made the five-yard touch rule for the secondary) or the NBA (where hand checking was made illegal), I do think it’s in the sport’s best interest to protect offensive production against quick slides and athletically gifted defensemen. (Personally, however, I’m not sure that a shot clock achieves this.)

Regardless of whatever ways our game can improve and loosen up, I do think that we have an accessible product that’s generally fun to watch (there’s a reason ESPNU shows all those games now), fun to play and accessible to those beyond I-695 or the LIE.  Personally, I’ll choose to embrace that instead of yearning for some abstract “purer” version of the game that -- as one well-known, well-respected Division I assistant once said to me -- “may or may not have ever existed.”

Syracuse-Hopkins observations

Wow. For anyone who thought this would be a ho-hum week in college lacrosse where power teams would rumble over inferior opponents, think again.

Regarding Syracuse-Hopkins, Kyle Wharton’s shot should’ve been a goal. If this gets me banned at Dino’s BBQ in Syracuse, so be it. How do we have any idea Wharton was headed to the crease when a defensive guy’s stick is lodged into his back? I know ESPNU’s Mark Dixon and Paul Carcaterra hedged a bit by saying it was a tough call, but each of them agreed that it should’ve been goal.

As for the double overtime goal, I kept thinking when Jeremy Thompson and Stephen Keogh were doing their two-man games (both have trained in the box) earlier that Keogh was getting open for a split second on the pick-and-slip. Then, on the last play in transition, Keogh, like he was still playing in some stripped Ontario rink, set a pick for Thompson in transition, rolled to the cage, caught the feed and finished. Nice foreshadowing, eh?

After all the preseason talk and No. 22 coronation, did anyone else notice that JoJo Marasco was MIA at the end of the game? I understand that fellow southpaw Tim Desko is doing a nice job, and it’s kind of redundant to have two lefties behind the cage. But Syracuse coach John Desko still went with his senior core of Jovan Miller, Josh Amidon and Thompson at the midfield (where Marasco often gets bumped up) in the final possessions.

Guess this means Marasco’s going to have to earn his end-of-game stripes.

As for Hopkins, the defense looks great. Pierce Basset stood on his head. Tucker Durkin continues to evolve as a more athletic, bigger Tom Garvey clone.

I do think the Jays need more production from offensive middie John Greeley. Personally, I think the upstate native needs to dodge north-south more (especially if he’s going to wear Rabils No. 9). Greeley is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. There’s just no need for the stop-and-go, Kevin Boland routine.

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